The Best Russian Books in English

Forget War and Peace: this blog offers reviews of fun and interesting Russian books in English, links to their Amazon pages, interviews with new and upcoming Russian authors, with the emphasis on Russian genre fiction: LitRPG, science fiction, fantasy, thrillers, romance, mystery and other popular reads.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Babushka and the Three Wise Men? Story, yes. Russian, no.

As Christmas gradually creeps up upon us, I feel I need to put this "Russian" Babushka legend straight.

There is NO Russian Christmas figure called Babushka. There is NO legend about her in Russia, period. She does NOT bring gifts to Russian kids, it's Father Frost who does. Babushka and the Three Wise Men is just an adorable literary tale by an English-language author, and it has nothing to do with Russian folklore whatsoever.

I came across this supposedly "Russian" legend about a gift-bringing Babushka a couple of years ago on some English-language Christmas site. I raised my eyebrows, chuckled -- yeah yeah, how stupid can one be! -- and forgot about it. It rang a few bells though: didn't I remember something similar from Italian folklore?

Imagine my amusement as I stumbled upon the following the other day:

My Russian teacher gave us the tale of 'Babushka and the Three Wise Men' last December. It is called a Russian legend about a traditional Christmas figure -  'Babushka' (means grandmother).

Oh. My. God.

There is NO such Christmas figure in Russia, period. Never has been.

What could be, though, is a case of cross-cultural confusion. This "Babushka" story sounds suspiciously similar to the Italian tale of La Befana: an elderly lady who indeed ignored the Three Kings' invitation to bring gifts to Baby Jesus and now travels around the world giving gifts to kids hoping to find the Christ child...

It's entirely possible that some long-forgotten 19th-century Russian children's book retold the Italian legend calling the old Befana "babushka" ("Grandma", or "old lady"). It's also possible that some 19th or early 20th century Russian immigrants brought some copies of the book into the USA and later, having forgotten their own culture and folklore, sincerely mistook the Italian legend for a Russian one. They could indeed start telling it to their second-generation immigrant kids as a "Russian" bedside story, just as Christmas Internet sites claim today.

That's how Americans ended up with a "Russian Christmas legend" that only exists in America. What breaks my heart is that a whole generation of English-speaking kids (and their teachers) will grow up thinking that this "traditional Russian Christmas figure" really exists. Well, it doesn't.

The story's lovely, tho'. Shame it's not Russian. We can always use a good Christmas tale.

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